Tag Archives: Lord of the Manor

Manorial Courts


This is an updated version of a post I wrote for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. It appeared there on 8th December 2016.

The manorial courts were one step up in law enforcement from the tithings that we looked at last week. Each manor had a court and the court governed the lives of everyone who lived on the manor, even determining when they could plant and when they could harvest. It fined them if they allowed their animals to stray onto the lord’s demesne, and it was where they took their claims against one another to be judged.

The manor was made up of the lord’s demesne as well as the land that he leased to tenants. The demesne was the farm that the lord kept for his own benefit.  The people who worked the manor’s land were both freemen and serfs (cottagers, smallholders or villeins). The manorial court dealt with the serfs’ issues, while the freemen were able to go to other courts, which we’ll come to later.  It was also able to create new bylaws for the manor.

Some lords had more than one manor and could not look after all of them closely, or they were away at war or absent for some other reason. The manorial court was one of the ways in which the manor could be managed whether the lord was there or not. He had a steward, who looked after his interests in his absence, but it was the village officials (reeve, hayward and beadle amongst others) who made sure that things happened as they should.

The manorial court decided the land boundaries and the days on which animals could graze in the fields. The steward presided over the court, but the village elected the officials from among themselves. The steward could not tell the court what to do and the court could appeal to the lord if necessary. Usually the business transacted by the court had no direct reference to the lord’s own affairs since it dealt with village problems such as loans not being repaid; men not turning out to work on the lord’s demesne; theft; the erection of a fence in the wrong place; or one villager injuring another.

The court was run by the rich villeins who provided the jurors and officials. The court was supposed to meet every three weeks, but some met less often. All the serfs in the village had to attend. Those who did not were fined. The court was often held in the nave of the church, the part that ‘belonged’ to the village. There were not many places in the village large enough to hold the court and many were simply held in the open air, often in the churchyard. Some manorial courts met in the hall of the manor house itself.

The jurors pronounced judgement on their fellow villagers (and occasionally on the lord) and this was sometimes put to the rest of the village as well for their assent. When making a judgement they had to take into account what they knew of the law, the customs of the manor and the manor’s bylaws. All the jurors and everyone else in the court knew both parties in every case that was brought before them, which was supposed to make it easier to come to a correct judgement. The system of justice was mostly based on the way in which society worked. People lived in small communities where everyone knew everyone else’s business and character. If you, as a villein, were asked whether your neighbour, Peter, had stolen from another neighbour, John, you would know the characters of both men and could assess whether John was making a false claim against Peter or whether Peter was a known thief. You did not have to have seen the (alleged) crime take place in order to be able to work out what had happened, nor did you need any evidence.

Villagers had to pay a fee to the lord get their case heard. The lord of the manor benefited from any fines issued by the court and the court was often the source of a large part of the lord’s income. The manorial court also required payments to the lord on all kinds of occasions – death, inheritance and marriage all had their appropriate fee. When these things happened part of the lord’s land was transferred from one person to another and the fee was to obtain the lord’s permission for that transfer. The court could generate a lot of income for the lord, and fines and fees tended to increase after the Black Death when there were fewer tenants to pay rents. The steward’s clerk recorded the cases and any fines or fees. As well as fines which went into the lord’s coffers, the court could also award damages to be paid by the guilty party in a case to the injured party.

One of the commonest cases to come before a manorial court was the accusation that someone was selling ale before it had been tasted by the ale taster. Ale was brewed at home and sold to the neighbours, who came to the brewer’s house to drink it. The ale taster’s rôle was to ensure that a consistent quality and price were maintained.

It is thanks to the surviving manor court rolls that so much is known about everyday life in the Middle Ages in England. What they show, however, is the things that went wrong and not the things that happened exactly as everybody thought they should.



England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh

Medieval Lives – Terry Jones

Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies

Making a Living in the Middle Ages – Christopher Dyer

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

The Lord of the Manor


In the fourteenth century, land ownership was split almost equally between lay lords (including the king) and ecclesiastical lords. In theory, all land in England belonged to the king, but, in practice, much of it had been given to the church. This was partly as a means of ensuring that prayers were said for the souls of the donor and his family after their deaths and partly because it was sometimes politically necessary to do so. Sometimes, of course, it was simply an act of piety. Lay lords held land from the king in return for paying him homage and promising to support him, with arms if required. The land that these tenants-in-chief held was sometimes given to their followers in turn, and these followers pledged their support to the tenant-in-chief. At the bottom of the ladder, the land was tended by tenants who paid rent for it by means of grain, livestock, their own labour on the lord’s demesne or money.

Some manors were vast, especially those belonging to bishoprics and earls. The ecclesiastical manors were the slowest to change and, throughout the fourteenth century, there were more serfs living and working on these manors than there were freemen. This was reversed on the manors belonging to lay lords, and the proportion of free to serf increased as the size of the manor decreased.

The demesne was the lord’s own land. Its produce was used to feed his household and any excess could be sold at market. If he had serfs who owed him labour services, they would work on the demesne for a specified number of days each week, as well as at plough time and harvest. Where there were no serfs owing labour services, the lord had to hire men (usually his tenants) to work on the demesne for him.

The produce of the demesne provided only part of lord’s income. He also made money when the land his tenants rented from him changed hands. If there was a marriage, or a death, or if a tenant took over from another tenant, a fee had to be paid to the lord of the manor. Because the lord technically owned the serfs, they also had to pay him a fee to be away from the manor for longer than one day. He also benefited from fines. If a villein left the manor for more than a day without the lord’s permission and was found out, he had to pay a fine.

I have so far been referring to the lord as a man, but often they were women. Just as land was given to monasteries, so it was also given to convents, which meant that many abbesses were lords of manors. Women also inherited manors. Joan of Kent inherited many manors all over England on her brother’s death.

Being a lord of a manor meant that the lord had to put in place the machinery to run the manor. If he was away from the manor frequently, and some lords had so many manors spread over a wide geographical area that they couldn’t hope to visit them all, they had to have officials in place to run the manor for them. These included a steward, a bailiff and a reeve, plus others depending on the size and type of manor.

Because they were the only ones with capital, lords of the manor usually provided the local infrastructure. As with giving land to the church, this was sometimes done because it benefited the lord himself and sometimes it was the result of a charitable impulse. Lords of the manor frequently built bridges, especially if these were on roads leading to a market to which the lord had the rights. Once built, the lord would charge people wishing to cross the bridge a toll, ostensibly for the bridge’s upkeep, but sometimes just as a means of making money. Where it was not practical to build a bridge, the lord might maintain a ferry to enable people to cross a river. They often built mills on their land. Their serfs had to use them and the lord of the manor benefited from a tax on their fee for using the mill, or a fine if it was discovered that they were not using it, either because they were taking their grain elsewhere or because they were grinding it at home. Lords of the manor endowed churches, both for their own use and for the use of their tenants. By far the most popular right with the lord’s tenants was his right to establish fairs and markets, as this provided them with somewhere to sell their surplus and to purchase things they could not make.

Among the lord’s less popular privileges was his right to fold all his tenant’s sheep on his demesne so that he could have the benefit of their manure. Conversely, if a tenant’s animal strayed onto the demesne, the tenant would have to pay a fine to have it released to him.

Wealthy lords with extensive estates might have forests, parks or chases where animals were protected so that the lords could hunt them. The kind of hunting they undertook was both prestigious and necessary. Hunting was a skill highly esteemed by nobles. It was necessary, in that it put meat on the table of the lord and his household.





Filed under Fourteenth Century

The Reeve


In the countryside, where most of the population lived, the most important man in a fourteenth century village was the reeve. Although he was a villein, he had great responsibility. The village housed the serfs and tenants of the lord of the manor. There were three main officials who ran the manor:

The first two looked out entirely for the lord’s interests, but the reeve also had responsibilities to the villagers.

Men who worked the land were either free or serfs (cottagers, smallholders or villeins). Serfs were not slaves, but they could do very little without the permission of the lord of the manor. The reeve was a villein, which meant he was a serf. He was selected for the position by the other villagers. Usually he came from one of the better-off families. The position of reeve meant that he had further opportunity to increase his wealth.

He came into the position at Michaelmas (29th September). This was when the agricultural year began. He served a fixed term, a number of years, and one of his main tasks was to make sure that those who owed labour to the lord reported for work and gave what they owed. He was responsible for every activity on the lord’s demesne as well as the livestock. The demesne was the farm that the lord kept for his own benefit. The rest of the land was leased to tenants. The demesne was worked by the lord’s own serfs, who were normally required to work for him for three days a week and to provide additional services at ploughing and harvest times. The serfs lived off their own strips of land, which they worked when they were not working for the lord. These strips also belonged to the lord.

Some reeves sold produce from the lord’s demesne and some collected rents. The reeve had to provide the demesne account at the end of the agricultural year, which he usually did by reading the marks on his tally stick to the lord’s clerk, who wrote it down.

The reeve was not paid with money, but the benefits he received made the position more than worthwhile. He did not have to provide any agricultural labour to the lord, and he might eat occasionally at the lord’s table. In many places, however, where quotas were required to be met by the village, the reeve would probably have to make up any shortfall himself.

Reeves were sometimes accused of using their master’s property, seed and labour provided by the villeins on their own holdings.

One of the reasons why the position of reeve was unpopular (some men paid to avoid the responsibility) was that the demesne was usually about ten times or more the size of anything the reeve had managed before and there was always the risk that he might not be capable of managing it, if it was his first term. The risk of a bad choice being made by the villagers was felt by both the lord and the reeve. The reeve had local knowledge of the land, the labour, the nearby markets, the best crops to grow and the best animals to raise, but he was responsible for making it all work together, ensuring that the harvest was sufficient for the lord’s household with enough to spare for sale. There was always a chance that an inexperienced reeve would be overwhelmed by the size of the task. The lord bore another risk – that the reeve would prove to be dishonest. To mitigate this risk most manors had stewards and auditors to check on the reeve.

If he was any good a reeve could usually make a profit from his office, not however, to the extent depicted in the Canterbury Tales. There is an old reeve among Chaucer’s pilgrims. Chaucer implies that he is as much a crook as the miller, his fellow pilgrim, since he is richer than his lord.



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Uncategorized